On Learning Foreign Languages.

Courtesy of Laudator Temporis Acti, a very pleasing piece by an anonymous Basil L. Gildersleeve, “On Learning Foreign Languages,” The Nation 42 (1886), p. 335:

In the last number of the Revue Internationale de l’Enseignement M. Bréal has published a lecture on learning foreign languages, in which he has attacked a practical problem in a practical way, not as a philologian, not as a determined tracker down of etymologies, not as an ingenious restorer of such dilapidated linguistic monuments as the ‘Song of the Arval Brethren,’ but, to use his own expression, as a paterfamilias. Literature, philology he ruthlessly puts aside, and absolutely discards all the cumbrous apparatus of grammar. The object he proposes is the practical acquisition of German, of English, Italian, Spanish. Philological study of these idioms he considers a waste of time for the young. Greek and Latin are the true educational gymnastic. English and German are needed as means of communication, of exchange among the peoples. He denies the familiar assertion that the French have not the bump of languages. The Minister of Public Instruction has recently tried the experiment of sending young Frenchmen abroad to learn English and German, and tbe experiment has had the happiest results. From Germany, from England the students have brought back not only a good knowledge of German, of English, but enlarged views. They have learned to appreciate different methods of thinking, reasoning, living. Of course the state cannot repeat this experiment on a large scale, but the system of exchanges so common between French-Swiss and German-Swiss families is recommended as an admirable and economical method of training young girls in foreign languages. M. Bréal admits that this is somewhat repugnant to French ways, but France has widened her ways so much in the last thirty years that we may look forward to greater latitude in this direction also. To those who can go abroad he gives the eminently sensible advice not to go abroad in order to pick up the language, but in order to study something definite, to work at something definite, whether banking at Frankfort, bookselling at Leipsic, brewing of beer or Aeginetan sculptures at Munich. You will learn banking, bookselling, beer-brewing, you will make yourself an authority on the origin of Greek art, and you will be a capital German scholar to boot.

The trouble that a philologian has to encounter is that he carries with him the sense of his profession. He is too much bent on being grammatical; and M. Bréal tells an amusing story of the efforts of a young French professor [François Gouin –LH] who betook himself to Germany equipped with the orthodox apparatus for the acquisition of the language. Endowed with a good memory and a prodigious power of work, he mastered his grammar, the 248 irregular verbs and all, in the space of a week. Then he put his knowledge to the test by going to a lecture; but he found, to his dismay, that he could not catch even one grammatical form, not even one of those rascally irregular verbs he had acquired with so much pains. His next point of attack was the vocabulary. Grammar is only the skeleton, words the flesh and blood. So he addressed himself to the radicals of the German language first, and finding a book that offered him a complete assortment of German radicals, he devoured it eagerly and digested his 1,000 roots in four days. The result was not a whit better. His next resource was Ollendorff—’German in Ninety Lessons.’ Ninety lessons—that means three months. Why not take three lessons a day? In thirty days Ollendorf is his—but not the German language. Jacotot, Robertson, Ploetz follow—all to no purpose. At last he conceived the heroic purpose of committing the dictionary to memory. 30,000 words cannot be considered a trifle. Still, at the rate of 1,000 words a day, a dictionary can be appropriated in a month. The failure was as absolute as before, and, to crown his humiliation, he met certain French artisans who had crossed the border with him and had learned German while working at their trade. The young professor finally succeeded in learning German, and afterwards published his experiences for the benefit of the world.

Still, with all respect for M. Bréal, the time spent on grammar, roots, Ollendorff, and dictionary was not all wasted. The true way to learn a language is to take it in at every pore, and the philological pore is not to be despised. A mature man cannot become a child again, although it is very true that in order to learn a language well one must get into childlike ways of mimicry. People who are plagued with a profound sense of their personal dignity never learn to speak a foreign language well. Of course M. Bréal is too sensible a man not to emphasize the fact that this infantine knowledge of language goes even more rapidly than it comes. A child learns a language perfectly in a year, and forgets it totally in six months; and those who learn languages as children do unlearn them with corresponding facility.

Much that M. Bréal says on the education of the ear, on the mastery of phrases, is excellent. For English as against German he has much to say. English is much nearer akin to the French than is German, it is the French form of the Germanic mind. It is a beautiful language, “all sinew and muscle, a language that seems to have resolved the problem of packing away the maximum of esprit in the minimum of matter”; and the short monosyllables which the German poet Platen detested, carry to M. Bréal’s mind a sense of plenitude and strength. At the same time, he acknowledges that, owing to a false start, he has never been able himself to do much with it practically, and he unconsciously illustrates the trickiness of our idiom by supposing a child equally at home in English and in French to address his English-speaking mother with the startling phrase, “Let me come on your knees” (Prends-moi sur tes genoux)— which is, being interpreted, “Take me on your lap.”

I love the story of the young French professor and his prodigious power of work, and I am sent into a fit of unseemly hilarity by the way in which the trickiness of our idiom has shifted so as to make the phrase “Let me come on your knees” far more startling than it was in 1886. For Platen, see this 2004 post (“Count Platen might be a poet, if he had lived in another time and if, besides that, he were also somebody other than himself” — and I see that rozele showed up in that thread!); Gildersleeve was mentioned in this 2009 one (“it all came from a 1909 joke by Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve that got taken seriously”).


  1. This is the guy who wrote Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar. It and Allen and Greenough’s have endured as the standard Latin reference grammars for more than a century.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Don’t forget Gonzalez Lodge. Sadly, I cannot find anywhere an explanation of how he came by his given name (his parents were William and Virginia.)


    The failure [to learn German by academic study] was as absolute as before, and, to crown his humiliation, he met certain French artisans who had crossed the border with him and had learned German while working at their trade.

    I had a similar experience with Kusaal: I set out to learn it by working out the grammar, acquiring vocabulary, and practicing as much as I could; a nurse from southern Ghana whose native tongue was as remote from Kusaal as Russian is from English, who had no linguistic training or indeed interest in languages at all as such, and who arrived in Bawku at much the same time as I did, greatly surpassed my command of Kusaal within a year or so by spending virtually all her time with Kusaal speakers, with absolutely no study at all.

  3. People who are plagued with a profound sense of their personal dignity never learn to speak a foreign language well.

    I do much better now than I did as a young man when I travel to another country and try out a few phrases of the language — because, as a more senior gentleman, I long ago abandoned any great sense of personal dignity.

  4. John Emerson says

    I knew a guy in Portland who had taught himself first German and the English as a “guest worker” , with no school. He spent all his time with Americans and when you met him asked you to correct his English, which was already excellent. I also knew an Iranian who spent a summer working in Alaska because there were no Iranians there to speak Persian with, and when I first met him I thought he was some kind of ethnic American,

  5. My father went to an Irish-medium primary school in the 1930s. One day a visiting German scholar of Celtic visited and addressed the class in Irish. My father remembers not understanding a word, and his teacher struggling hard to stifle his giggles.

  6. I wonder if it was Thurneysen? He was used as a Horrible Example when I studied Old Irish in Dublin in 1975: they told us that he could identify the most obscure deuterotonic form, root hopelessly mashed by vowel reduction, at a glance, but he was shaky on when to use the two different verbs meaning ‘to be’ (is and ), even though no one who’s studied the modern language for more than a week could possibly confuse them. (This was in the context of urging us to study Modern Irish as well, and it worked.)

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Thurneysen would have been well into his 70s in the 1930s. I thought maybe Pokorny, who was Austrian but based nominally in Berlin until 1943.

  8. David Marjanović says

    English is much nearer akin to the French than is German, it is the French form of the Germanic mind.

    …yes, up to a point. My impression is that literal translation between French and German (beyond the most obvious things like where to put the adjectives) gives idiomatic results much more often than between either of them and English.

  9. “Don’t forget Gonzalez Lodge. Sadly, I cannot find anywhere an explanation of how he came by his given name (his parents were William and Virginia.)”

    Hard to find even a biography. Evidence-less wild guess: a difficult but successful birth may have been attended by a Dr. Gonzalez.

  10. I’m sorry, I yielded to the temptation to bring up the incident in An Béal Bocht where the German Gaelic scholar interviews the family pig.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Well , the mother was a Cockey from Carroll Co., MD and I am supposing therefore a Catholic, and the father was a doctor . I do not know if this person had achieved international notice by 1863…
    “Born Manuel Míguez González in Spain in 1831, Father Faustino is known for using his interests and passions — education and science — to advocate for the people he encountered in his life. While he was well-known for his devotion to the education of women, he was also devoted to science and the natural remedies found around him. Early in his priesthood, Father Faustino began studying the natural healing properties in plants, and saw them as gifts from God that could help the sick. So, when those who were ailing in some way would come to him for help, he would create natural medicines out of his concoctions, often curing those who sought his guidance. He became known for his use of science and medicine in healing those who needed it most.”
    Source: https://thecentralminnesotacatholic.org/st-manuel-miguez-gonzalez/
    If so, I know I would prefer Gonzalez to Faustino.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    the incident in An Béal Bocht where the German Gaelic scholar interviews the family pig.

    A rookie mistake. All pigs speak Dutch. (Very guttural language, the Dutch.)

  13. The learned gentleman in question recorded sounds emitted by the pig which he mistook for Irish. And then…

    The noble gentleman decided that this specimen of Irish was extraordinarily difficult, and was greatly delighted that he had with him the aforementioned recording machine. He understood that really good Irish is very complex, and the best Irish must be practically illegible…

    These recordings went to the city of Berlin, to Germany, and what was heard from the device was presented to people of great scholarship from all over the Continent. These wisest of the wisest said that they had never heard such strong, poetic and incomprehensible Irish, and that one should not worry about the Irish language as long as such speech was heard within Ireland. They lovingly endowed the noble gentleman with the highest academic degree and, most interestingly, created a small commission from among their members to carefully study the dialect recorded by the device, in order to find out whether it would be possible to extract some meaning from it.

  14. @mollymooly: Marstrander?

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    @Rodger C
    Sa Bhlascaod bhí an Rí agus cuid mhaith de na hoileánaigh ag fáiltiú roimhe. ‘Marstrander addressed them in a carefully prepared speech in the only variety of Irish he knew — Old Irish. When he had finished he looked expectantly at the King, anxious to hear his reply. The latter, instead of delivering the expected speech, exclaimed in genuine admiration: Is she not a beautiful language, the Norwegian one!’
    Source: https://www.ainm.ie/Bio.aspx?ID=0460
    The first sentence just says that the the “King” of the Island and a good few of the islanders were there to greet M.
    The article goes on to say:

    Cuireann Seán Ó Lúing an t-eolas breise seo ar fáil: ‘He was interned in a concentration camp at Grini near Oslo. While there he managed to smuggle to his son Kai a diary written on toilet paper in Old Irish. … Shortly afterwards Kai, who was in the resistance movement himself, was arrested and the diary discovered. It was sent for decoding to language experts in Berlin who, baffled, returned it to the Gestapo in Norway saying that the only person capable of translating this was Professor Marstrander of Oslo!’.

    Se non é vero, é ben trovato…

  16. Great story!

  17. Speaking of Dutch, there is an old book called An Irishman’s Difficulties with the Dutch Language.

  18. Quite amusing:

    “Well, you see,” he resumed, “I was afraid I’d never pick up the language. There is no chance of practice unless you get away from everybody that speaks English. That was not too easy, I tell you. But Enderby helped me, and we searched about the Hague for two whole days. At last we found perfectly charming rooms opposite a canal; the landlady didn’t know a word of English. She knew Dutch, though, all right. Fluent, did you say? I should think she was. A perfect marvel. No need of the dictionary, you know.—Verbs all in their proper places—and plenty of them!

    Enderby told her all I required, and then went away. It was like being thrown into the sea, as you may guess; but I imagined I should soon learn to swim. There’s nothing like being cast completely on your own resources, they say. Still it was a bit awkward at coffee-time, when the landlady came up and talked. She poured forth a rapid and resistless stream of friendly Dutch upon me, while I nodded in the intervals and tried to think. It was a very one-sided business. I was very hungry, too, and wanted luncheon. Now there was abundance of this unequal kind of conversation, but no lunch in sight, so I—(remember I knew only ja and neen, and was not very sure of them, either)—I just pointed gracefully to my lips to indicate that I needed food. That produced an immediate effect—a torrent of eloquence forcibly delivered and ending with some enquiry about biting!

    I shook my head and said “Neen, neen! You put it too crudely—luncheon—eat—eat.”

    “O ja,” she replied, “best. Eten—eten om vijf uur—vijf.” And she held out one hand with the fingers spread. It seemed to me she was swearing there was enough food in the house to satisfy a hungry Irishman.

    “Good—so far,” I returned. “Ja, ja!”

    “En mynheer wil niet ontbijten?” she rejoined. This was the biting again, so I said decidedly, “Neen; niet bijte”. She seemed surprised and a little hurt, but she said nothing and went away. And of course I had to fast until five o’clock.

    This would never do, I felt; and that evening I bought the first grammar and dictionary I could lay my hands on at a second-hand bookstall in the Binnenhof.

    But “Cuey-na-Gael” is an odd-looking pseudonym.

  19. But “Cuey-na-Gael” is an odd-looking pseudonym.

    We find phrases like Glór na nGael “voice of the Gaels”, an organization, but also a phrase that I think might be found on newspaper mastheads. The organization dominates the search results, making it hard to find earlier uses.

    Guth na nGaedheal “voice of the Gaels”: an half-yearly bi-lingual magazine published by the Gaelic League of London from 1904.

    The first word I believe is Cooee, the uniquely Australian geo-location system, messaging system, national identity marker, … Probably better known in Britain in the early 20th century than now, as it was featured in some music-hall turns, although it did turn up in Monty Python.

    RN had a good history. Unfortunately, it seems to be the only episode on this page not available for download. But Hatophiles may be interested in the program about Reginald Fleming Johnston on the same page.

  20. Thanks!

  21. @maidhc: I initially misread what you wrote as “bi-yearly half-lingual.”

    That naturally reminded my of this bit from The Muppet Show, with Gonzo and Elke Sommer.

  22. one of the 19th-century generations of my upstate new york lineage – with no spanish speakers, peninsulares o criollos, among them – includes a number of spanish first names (including a rozilla, oddly enough). i’ve assumed the namings were in some way related to the mexican-american war, in which some of the previous generation fought (for the annexationists, unfortunately). i wonder if that could also explain doctor doctor doctor lodge?

  23. Almanzo Wilder (of Little House on the Prairie fame) was born in 1857 in upstate NY, near the Canadian border. Could it have been a fashion then, as French names were at other times and places? Was there a fad for Spanish literature or clothing at the time? I notice that there was a pulse of immigration from Spain to the States in the 1850s. Were they viewed as interesting or exotic?

  24. I also recall famous Union general with Shawnee first name

  25. @SFReader: The really famous one had a Shawnee middle name, although maybe you are alluding to another general I have forgotten.

    From the Civil War generation, there is also Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., who was born in 1923 and fought in the Mexican War. (Note that Simon Bolivar was still alive and President of Colombia in 1823.) Like John Breckenridge, Buckner was a Kentuckian who turned traitor during the Civil War. His son, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., was a general in the Second World War, commanding the Tenth Army in the Battle of Okinawa (although, since he died in the nattle, he was for decades probably best known as the answer to a trivia question).

  26. Like John Breckenridge, Buckner was a Kentuckian who turned traitor during the Civil War.

    Otherwise put, he was a Kentuckian who refused to turn traitor to his state, like Robert E. Lee. “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” (Miles’s Law)

    Another good example is George Washington, who was undoubtedly a traitor to his king, but whether he was a traitor to his country depends on what you think his country was.

  27. There is a controversy about general Sherman’s first name.

    According to some accounts he was named simply Tecumseh and received first name William only later when at age of nine he was taken by Ewing family and his foster mother discovered that the boy had no Christian name.

  28. @John Cowan: Kentucky (the Frankfort government) remained a Union state, though it also had a Confederate government in Bowling Green.

  29. Indeed, continued Union control if Kentucky was of critical importance in the Western Theatre, where both Grant and Sherman proved themselves. Lincoln himself said, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” When I see Confederate flags flying or for sale in Kentucky, I always feel especially angry and disappointed, since one of the state’s most important historical contributions was that it did not join the treason in defense of slavery.

    Regarding Sherman’s first name, the claim that his birth name was simply Tecumseh does not appear until well after the general’s death, and it flatly contradicts Sherman’s own memoirs (which are a very interesting read, I might add).

  30. Thanks for the rec. I’m still on Eddyshaw’s African history in conjunction with some other similar books, but Grant’s memoirs are on the shelf and I think I’ll take them up with Sherman’s.

  31. John Emerson says

    Sherman was head of a school ancestral to LSU before the war, and (per his memoirs) basically predicted the course of the war to his friends and acquaintances headed for the Confederate Army. Something like “You will win at first, because you are ardent and heroic, but once you get us started we will grind you down”.

    Does LSU celebrate Sherman? I rather doubt it. What about when LSU plays Georgia Tech?

  32. Sherman, on the expected course of the Civil War:

    You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…. Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

    Sam Houston, similarly:

    After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.

    (Houston was a lifelong Southerner, born in Virginia, governor of Tennessee, then most famously a Texan: general and president of independent Texas as well as senator and governor of the state of Texas. Being governor of two states makes him the answer to another trivia question, but unlike Buckner, Houston is obviously quite famous even apart from that.)

  33. John Emerson says

    The history of Texas is another story. The Comanches were a major power there for decades and were finally definitively suppressed only after the Civil War.

    Sherman’s attitude and actions during the Indian Wars were ruthless and brutal and don’t make you admire him more.

  34. Generals tend to be ruthless and brutal; c’est le métier. (Nice guys finish last as lieutenants.)

  35. John Emerson says

    Well, I think he proposed extermination.

  36. I’m not familiar with that. It’s possible. But are you sure you’re thinking of Sherman, not Sheridan?

  37. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    There is also Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., who was born in 1923 and fought in the Mexican War. (Note that Simon Bolivar was still alive and President of Colombia in 1823.)

    President of Gran Colombia — the Gran is important because modern Colombia is just a part of it.

    Is there any explanation of Buckner’s parents’ reasons for choosing that name? It seems an unlikely one, and if Wikipedia is to be believed it’s not pronounced like Simón Bolívar.

    I have visited the place where Simón Bolívar died — one of the more interesting and attractive places to visit in Santa Marta.

  38. it’s not pronounced like Simón Bolívar

    In American English, even el Libertador is usually SI-mon BOWL-ivahr.

  39. Or BOLL-iver (which I think is common in the South).

  40. Athel Cornish-Bowden: President of Gran Colombia—the Gran is important because modern Colombia is just a part of it.

    I don’t buy this argument, primarily because it is only applied to Colombia, not to other states that have been similarly reduced. It can sometimes be important to clarify which geographical “Colombia” is being referred to. Bolivar’s independent state of Columbia is (largely) represented today by four successor states—Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama (which joined later and also split from South American Colombia later than Venezuela and Ecuador). The state that became modern-day Colombia did not initially lay claim to being the direct continuation of Bolivar’s state any more than Venezuela and Ecuador. It was named “New Granada” at first, and went through several changes before returning to the name “Colombia.” However, “New Granada” was still a maximalist name; it was the colonial-era name for the region that (approximately) became the original independent Colombia. Moreover, nowadays the state does try to portray itself as the direct continuation of Bolivar’s state, from which the other successor states split.

    Yet, many countries have split up through history, and the affectation of using an ahistorical “Gran” with the name of the old state of Colombia seems to be unique. Nobody talks about nineteenth-century “Gran Austria” or “Gran the United Kingdom,” so I don’t see why Colombia should be singled out that way.

  41. David Marjanović says

    “Gran Austria”

    Austria-Hungary. Granted, both parts are very much grandes compared to the current countries of their names.

    “Gran the United Kingdom,”

    British Empire.

    Also, Großdeutschland of WWII. (No escape from Godwin’s Law around here.)

  42. @David Marjanović: I admit that Austria is a weird example, since it was never a unitary state. Even so, after 1867 there was a huge swath of territory that was officially part of Austria that certainly is not now. Moreover, even some of the oldest parts of historical Austria proper are now part of Italy.

    On the other hand, Gran the United Kingdom would definitely not be the British Empire but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which was truncated to the current state in the 1920s. There is no separate common name for the prior, larger version of this state, and the same can be said of many states that have shrunk from their various territories.

  43. So, in the American South Bolívar rhymes with Taliaferro.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    Gran Austria


  45. David Marjanović says

    We’ve mentioned it before.

    Also [deleted, just follow the link].

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